Fire The Bastards
July 27, 2010 10:14 PM   Subscribe

Fire the Bastards... examined the initial 55 reviews that appeared in response to the publication of William Gaddis's masterpiece The Recognitions.

He discovered that some reviewers either did not read or finish the work. Almost half of the reviews contained factual errors. Many employed the same clichés: "too difficult", "too long", "too negative", "ambitious", "a promising first novel." In one case he found that one critic purloined part of his review from another review. - Wikipedia
posted by Joe Beese (40 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I find it difficult to read things with no punctuation or capitalization.
posted by Huck500 at 10:20 PM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Good books are often difficult to read, and all the more rewarding for the effort one puts into them.
posted by Kattullus at 10:41 PM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I thought Amazon fixed the lazy reviewers problem (seriously)

Fire the Bastards! appeared in book form in 1992. The publishers did not have the permission of the author to print the text. As the work had never been copyrighted, however, it was in the public domain and no permission was required for publication.

Sonny Bono took care of this one.
posted by victors at 10:43 PM on July 27, 2010

Oh, and if you do want to tackle Gaddis (something I haven't done) has extensive annotations for all five of his novels.
posted by Kattullus at 10:50 PM on July 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

The Recognitions is probably the one book I have been unable to finish. In fact, I've never gotten past the part where (I think) he copies his dad's painting and sells the original.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:56 PM on July 27, 2010

I find it difficult to read things with no punctuation or capitalization.

The Recognitions shouldn't really cause you problems on either front. Now if long, winding, run-on sentences trouble you, you may take issue. Here is the first random sentence my eyes fell on after opening up my copy:

"Up the coast of the New World the ship bearing ten million bananas ground out its course, every minute the waste heaving brokenly around it more brilliant as the moon rose off the starboard bow and moved into the sky with effortless guile, unashamed of the stigmata blemishing the face she showed from the frozen fogs of the Grand Banks to the jungles of Brazil, where along the Rio Branco they knew her for a girl who loved her brother the sun; and the sun, suspicious, trapped her in her evil passion by drawing a blackened hand across her face, leaving the marks which betrayed her, and betray her still."

I miss the days when I could read a sentence like that with a straight face.
posted by drpynchon at 11:08 PM on July 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

Do you now, drpynchon.
posted by fleacircus at 11:21 PM on July 27, 2010 [7 favorites]

All of this seems so ancient. Newspapers? Book reviewers? You mean people made a living reviewing books? Printed on paper? Get outta here.

William Gaddis is one of my favorite authors and The Recognitions is one of my favorite books, but it still took me a couple of times to work my way through it. Times? Who am I kidding. It was years. One thing that helped was guilt. I would always see that big slab of a book sitting on my shelf, taking up so much space. Taunting me. I even took it with me when I moved a couple times, before I had finished reading it. I'd always have to make space for that goddamn brick. Haul it up a couple flights of stairs. And it would always be the defeated slog of a broken man. Here I was, outsmarted by a book. 500 pages in and still only halfway through. What was this Gaddis guy's problem? Untranslated Latin, German, French, who knows what else. A 50 page party scene consisting solely of dialogue. You mean I have to figure out who's talking? I have to do the work? And yet I couldn't get rid of it. That big, fat piece of book would always be there. Haunting me, guilting me. Until finally, to exorcise the demon, I finished it. Hundred page spurts until my eyes bled. But man, I felt proud. I imagine people have a similar feeling when they finish Joyce's Ulysses, but I wouldn't know. I haven't finished that one yet. But it's on my shelf. I can see it right now, staring back at me. Laying on the guilt.

And I think that is one of the greatest losses as we switch from the page to the byte. I've never been guilted by a pdf. I've never had to cram 70 beaten, weathered ebooks into a cardboard box, promising myself that when I get the time, I'll read them all. Some books you can't just pick up and read. They need to stay with you a while. You need to share some history with them. Oh, yeah, it's that copy that your old boyfriend's weird co-worker lent you after you chatted with her at that party about how you were really into Modernism, but you never gave it back cause you were always planning to read it and then you forgot and moved and then moved again and then had a garage sale, but you just couldn't bring yourself to sell. You decided to flip through it while you sat at the garage sale and something finally clicked. Years later, something finally clicked, you plowed through that book. And it's always a discovery. It's like, how did I never read this before? This is great. For me, a lot of books are like that. I need to carry them around with me. Have them staring back at me from my shelf. Their cruel, eyeless covers.

Not all books are like this, of course. But some are. The Recognitions was, and I'll always treasure it for that. The act of reading it was its own adventure. I thank Gaddis for that. If it wasn't for Jack Green and people like him, people who believed in this weird, dense, complex 900+ page debut novel from an unknown writer, The Recognitions might be out of print. Hell, with reviews like that, who could blame 'em? But it's not out of print. So fire the bastards! I raise my glass to Gaddis, and Jack Green, and to all the other fools out there to decide to tackle massive slabs they call books. One day, you'll finish it, and it'll be worth it.
posted by fryman at 11:23 PM on July 27, 2010 [14 favorites]

Strange, I've noticed the exact same pattern. 53 out of 55 of my reviews are amateurish & incompetent, and fail to recognize my greatness.
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:33 PM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm a Gaddis bore, a proselytizer, to my friends like a Jehovah's Witness of William Gaddis, always with one of his books under my arm, pressing them to read it, just try it, come on -- to very little success. In Jack Green this went much further of course. And Steven Moore, may the dear bless him for keeping these and many other even more obscure books in print.

But despite previous failures, I will try what I think is the best convincer: it's not that the books are "hard" to read (oh, dear) or that they are long. It's that they are among the most prescient books out there (read J R during any one of the many financial crises of the past 50 years, especially this latest one, and very especially the dotcom one of 2000; read Carpenter's Gothic any time you want to reflect on greedy corporations and governments meddling in faraway dictatorships), and above all, they are among the funniest books I've ever read.

Gaddis' humor is what gets lost in all the faffing about his erudition; he was a Harvard boy (kicked out) and a writer for the Harvard Lampoon. That says an awful lot of it.

He was also a drunk, struggled to survive (in a upper class New England kind of way) as a writer of ad copy for big corporations), and arrogant. Archetypal, for the day.

Fire the Bastards is very funny too. It is a good gateway drug to full-powered Gaddis. So are the essays in The Rush for Second Place.

But do yourself a favor: read Gaddis, in order. I dare ya.
posted by chavenet at 11:49 PM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I believe the lesson here is... if you're not going to read a book because it's too difficult, give it a glowing review (Infinite Jest is brilliant!), because if you give it a negative review fans are going to give your review a severe audit.
posted by bobo123 at 11:56 PM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I guess what I should have said is that experimental writing in a review of book reviews seems ridiculous to me, but maybe I just don't -get it-.

From the text (of Fire the Bastards!):

(yes i know youve heard all about conformity madisonavenue & indi-
viduality & you dont want to read another word about topics stale
usedup & newly unfashionable which means: youve been conned
again! when an idea starts to look dangerous to Them they destroy
it with the novelty trick they grab onto it themselves & write it up
everywhere & everyphonyway until you get sick of it, the novelty
wears off, the ideas not dangerous but passe & meantime the right
people have made plenty money out of it especially compared to
what theyd make if they wrote about their own ideas but ideas
arent like hats 1 fashions not replaceable by another except among
the fashionable timekillers "conformism"s just as important before
during & after the henry luce boys get the hots for it)

Look, the guy invented internet comment ranting in 1962!
posted by Huck500 at 12:04 AM on July 28, 2010 [5 favorites]

The critical response to "Fire The Bastards!?" "tl;dr"
posted by KingEdRa at 12:46 AM on July 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

That's a lot of boners.
posted by bardic at 2:31 AM on July 28, 2010

I got ~150 pages into this first attempt at the Recognitions before life took over and I had to set it down and occupy my reading time with shorter narratives (like, uh, page-long ones). The guilt is just as drpynchon describes, and as much as I'd like to read the links provided I can't even do that as it would feel like cheating somehow.
posted by carsonb at 3:52 AM on July 28, 2010

Back in my days as a newspaper reviewer, I'd would skip about a third to half of most books of commercial fiction. You just couldn't pay me enough to read a whole Stephen King.
posted by Faze at 4:43 AM on July 28, 2010

JR was, to me, like falling down the stairs in slow motion. Yes, it was that good.
posted by applemeat at 5:14 AM on July 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Strange, I've noticed the exact same pattern. 53 out of 55 of my reviews are amateurish & incompetent, and fail to recognize my greatness.

The post doesn't make it clear but Fire the Bastards! is by Jack Green, not William Gaddis. The internet says:
Jack Green is a pseudonym of John Carlisle. Born around 1928 he attended Princeton and later worked in insurance. After assuming the name Jack Green he started newspaper, producing seventeen issues of it between 1957 and 1965.
Apparently Fire The Bastards! is the only notable thing he wrote. And it is garbage.
posted by ninebelow at 5:43 AM on July 28, 2010

drpynchon & Huck500 wrote: [words]

That is such incredibly poor writing I refuse to even quote it.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:20 AM on July 28, 2010

...the waste heaving brokenly around it...

I've never read any Gaddis besides that quote, and I'm not going to judge his style by one word. But my gut lurched when I read that. Ugh!
posted by grumblebee at 6:30 AM on July 28, 2010

Agape Agape is short and manageable but he was kind of medded up on pain killers when writing it, so if you don't like diffuse and rambling that might not be a good starting point.
posted by The Straightener at 6:34 AM on July 28, 2010

I think what's most notable about Fire the Bastards now is the sheer volume of attention that the book got: yes, the reviews were by and large incompetent, but there were 55 long ones. Not all the people reviewing it were hacks: among them is John Berger, who might have been having an off day, but more likely had his own ideas about what a novel about painting should be: A Painter of Our Time came out a few years later.

A thousand-page novel published now, even with a lot of publicity, would be unlikely to attract as much attention. (Infinite Jest, published in 1995, sneaked under the wire; someone could probably write a Fire the Bastards-like compilation of reviews of William Vollmann where the reviewer is indignant that the author imagines they would have time to read such long books.) Part of this is the decline of reviewing culture; part of it is that there are so many books being published now.

I like The Recognitions very much, but it does feel like a warm-up for J R, which to my mind is the best American novel of the second half of the twentieth century.
posted by with hidden noise at 6:36 AM on July 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

How is JR in comparison to Frolic of His Own and Carpenter's Gothic in terms of readability? Is it a much bigger task or on par? I didn't have any difficulty with either FoHO or CG, but JR always seemed next level daunting in terms of commitment so I never approached it.
posted by The Straightener at 6:44 AM on July 28, 2010

J R is mostly unattributed dialogue (like the party scenes in The Recognitions) which is very confusing for the first twenty pages or so, but then you get the hang of it & you're fine. Gaddis is very good at dialogue (picked up some tricks from Ronald Firbank); the characters all have distinctive voices, and after a while you end up talking like them. If in doubt, read it aloud.
posted by with hidden noise at 6:48 AM on July 28, 2010

I was defeated by Carpenter's Gothic. I thought I had learned to live with that defeat. Until now.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:49 AM on July 28, 2010

Carpenter's Gothic, though it's short, isn't really the best way in; it's depressing but not as rewardingly funny as The Recognitions, J R, or A Frolic of His Own. Frolic might be the easiest way in; it's a bit lighter than the two big ones.
posted by with hidden noise at 7:22 AM on July 28, 2010

JR it is! Thanks, with hidden noise. You've inspired me.
posted by mrgrimm at 7:34 AM on July 28, 2010

Obligatory link to Jonathan Franzen's article, Mr. Difficult: William Gaddis and the Problem of Hard-to-Read Books. Very good article, available to New Yorker subscribers in the archives.

I picked up JR and only made it through a hundred-odd pages before moving on. There are some very rewarding moments of brilliance, but christ is it a slog. And I'm very firmly in the "Infinite Jest is brilliant" camp. I ended up selling JR to a second-hand bookstore in Berlin because I didn't want to have to carry it home across the atlantic.
posted by cmyr at 7:45 AM on July 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

But postmodern fiction wasn't supposed to be about sympathetic characters.

He should re-read Mason & Dixon. ;p

Great article. I <3>writing rules. Excited to read Freedom.

its only aesthetic weakness, really, is that much of it is repetitive, incoherent, and insanely boring

posted by mrgrimm at 8:15 AM on July 28, 2010

nobody wants to admit they just spent months reading a 1,000 page book that ended up being mediocre

War and Peace. don't do it.
posted by mrgrimm at 8:17 AM on July 28, 2010

Eh, I haven't dipped into The Recognitions yet, but it seems unfair to judge it based on the one out-of-context sentence quoted in this thread (which was interesting and unusual, at least.) I'd imagine we could do something similar with Infinite Jest to persuasively argue that it's terribly written. The entire faux-Ebonics chapter, for example.
posted by naju at 9:46 AM on July 28, 2010

I'm a sucker for these kinds of books, and as such, I've managed to work all the way through Joyce and Pynchon (actually saving V for this fall), and most of the way through Barth, but TR is the only Gaddis I could read. The Recognitions (TR), Houy, has some very worthwhile moments, and it's not that difficult to read. My notes at the time i read it indicate that I was impressed by his biting critiques of the consumerist culture of the day, but that the meandering plot and murky allegorical passages left me bored for stretches at a time.
Books like these were never meant to compete with TV, the internet, gaming and a fast paced attention span. I take pride in finishing a couple of them every year just to prove that I can still pace my enjoyment of a thing over a longer period of time, silly as that might be, but i never feel embarrassment if I put one aside because I just don't like it.
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:56 AM on July 28, 2010

I think it's fair to review a book, and say "Whoa, this book was torture to read. I couldn't bear to finish it."

What's with masochism and reading, anyway? I started to read Ulysses, and after about two pages, I got it. OK, very funny/cool/artistic/groundbreaking/stupid. Next.
posted by Xoebe at 11:15 AM on July 28, 2010

I started to read Ulysses, and after about two pages, I got it.

No, you didn't.
posted by twirlip at 12:02 PM on July 28, 2010 [4 favorites]

> War and Peace. don't do it.

Your loss. I've read it three times and intend to do so again. People should feel free to skip the second appendix, though (Tolstoy's endless theoretical rant about history)—it's wrongheaded and boring and will just bring you down after a great reading experience.
posted by languagehat at 12:21 PM on July 28, 2010

Your loss.

Not my loss. I've read it (in English ... the "original" version, or older version, not sure who translated ...). I just didn't like it. (I did read both epilogues, I'm pretty sure.)

So I just do not recommend it. (Oddly, I gave the new translation as a gift to my brother a few years ago ... hey, he wanted it.)

I know it's supposed to be stylistically similar to Les Miserables, but I loved Les Mis (the digression on Paris sewers is awesome), and was bored to tears by the end of W&P. I liked the first 2 books fine, the 3rd slowed down quite a bit, and the 4th was interminable.
posted by mrgrimm at 12:30 PM on July 28, 2010

So, your favorite long novel sucks. Thanks Metafilter!

I love the kids these days who claim to adore the complex interweaved plots and brilliantly imagined dialogue of, say "The Wire", but can't handle a book with more than 2 characters and 180 pages.

Your loss.

(And thanks, with hidden noise, for convincing someone to try WG.)
posted by chavenet at 1:59 PM on July 28, 2010

I really can't get behind any criticisms of the above sentence, the writing somehow both breathless and contemplative. But then again, since I can't keep myself from rereading JR and The Recognitions, you'd expect little else from me. Still, I do wonder whether the art of complex things (meaning intricate, baroque) is waning quite a bit in modern taste or culture or whatever.

I love William Gass's intro to The Recognitions, included in the penguin paperback edition. I love Gibbs stuck in that apartment in JR and the stupid way my emails turn into silly JR-approximations when I read it. I love Gaddis's restort in his written interview, in response to the vignette of Nabokov sitting on school buses listening to school girls, that 'one either has an ear or one doesn't." I love the all ways counterfeits and fakery are interwoven into The Recognitions, which not even a hundred lifetimes would allow me to unravel...

The appeal for me of finishing one of those 'hogs' like The Recognitions or Mason and Dixons is the way it legitimates one to peak in on or duck back into those books, rediscovering parts and exploring ones that hadn't been appreciated in previous gos around.
posted by rudster at 5:23 PM on July 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I love the kids these days who claim to adore the complex interweaved plots and brilliantly imagined dialogue of, say "The Wire", but can't handle a book with more than 2 characters and 180 pages.

This is an appealing argument, but I think the issue is more about the density of the language in books like The Recognitions. Gaddis' style forces you to slow down and think about what you're reading, sentence by sentence. Keeping track of the plot and characters isn't terribly difficult, but you have to be paying close attention to parse a sentence like the one drpynchon quoted, or to figure out who to attribute a line of dialogue to in J R.

The Wire doesn't do that. The way it tells the story -- the way scenes are constructed, the editing, the way shots are framed -- is more or less the same as any other TV show. Everything the viewer needs to know is laid out in a very straightforward, conventional way, and we can follow along quite easily because we've been trained in that particular "grammar" of film. (I just watched Inception, and it does a really good job of using conventional film grammar to help people follow a complicated story.) It would make more sense to compare Gaddis to someone like Tarkovsky or Antonioni, where the way the story is told is so different that some people have a hard time making sense of what they're watching. Most people read books and watch movies because they want someone to tell them a story; a "difficult" style gets in the way of that.
posted by twirlip at 11:55 PM on July 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

I happen to be reading The Recognitions right now for a book group. I've wanted to read it for a while, and once got about 100 pages in before my vacation ended and I lost the thread. I'm actually fairly ambivalent about the book at this point. I loved the two extended party scenes, and several other isolated scenes, but on the whole I haven't loved the book. I have enjoyed it.

I recently looked up a couple of words from the book in the OED (online edition), and was charmed to find that of the three I looked up, two definitions had sentences from The Recognitions among their illustrative quotations. (The third was unlisted, and appears to be a neologism of Gaddis's.)
posted by OmieWise at 8:34 AM on July 29, 2010

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